Gossip: Friend or Foe?

Posted on December 7, 2011

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The other day I was informed by my sister-in-law that in the early days of my relationship with my loving life partner, a mutual ‘friend’ of the family had been trash talking me behind my back.

Now as a social basketball player I am no stranger to large, older women spitting mad fire up in my grill, but this crossed a line.

This person had made some outlandish and wildly inaccurate inferences about my past relationships and had chosen to share them with my future family-in-law.

How this person, who I am not, nor have I ever been close to, thought it would be a constructive thing to:

a)    Conjure imaginings about my sex life (ew)

b)    Discuss these imaginings with anyone at all (double ew)

c)    Discuss these imaginings with the family of MY FUTURE HUSBAND (whaaaaa???)

Is beyond me.

One can only presume that this person seemed to think that my future family-in-law should be warned about my Chlamydia-infested, harlot alter-ego.

Upon hearing this tale of treachery, I spent a few hours feeling completely outraged, but outrage soon gave way to intense curiosity and I started mulling over this person’s intent in gossiping about me in the first place.

She barely knows me; we spend no time together; she would have absolutely no clue about 99% of the daily happenings my life.  The 1% she *actually* knows about is apparently my shamelessly loose social activities.

What did she have to gain by speaking about me so maliciously?

What are our motivations for gossip?

It’s a tricky thing.  We have all gossiped about people we don’t know very well and regaled friends with hearsay and conjecture.

We have all judged others who weren’t in the room to defend themselves based on sketchy information and then relished passing it on.  And we have all damaged relationships and reputations in this way.

gos·sip [gos-uhp]

As defined, gossip is ‘idle talk or rumour, especially about the personal or private affairs of others’.

It is both a noun and a verb.

I was always raised to believe that if you couldn’t say it to someone’s face; you probably shouldn’t be saying it.

But there are also very necessary caveats over human interaction because there will be times we need to process or vent with regard to other people.  But context is crucial.  There is a right and wrong way to go about these conversations.

For example, I have cautioned girlfriends in the past about dating certain guys due to what I know of said gentleman’s past behaviour or character traits.  I have had long talks with close family and trusted friends with regard to my frustrations with other people.

The context for these conversations is crucial.  The people you trust to have these conversations with is also crucial.  They must know you well enough to determine when to tell you to shut up and either deal with it with the person or just move on.

What you don’t know won’t hurt you?

In many cases, the old saying ‘what you don’t know won’t hurt you’ is often true, but one of the things we humans do not like is to be made a fool of.  We also do not like to see people we love being made a fool of.

We like to know where we stand with people.

My loyal sister-in-law commented that she told me about this person’s bizarre claims because ‘I would want to know if I were you’.

And she’s right.  I’m glad she told me because it helped me to clarify where I stood with this person.

Which is basically that they are no longer on my Christmas card list.  Not that I have one, but I’m contemplating creating one just so I can cross this person’s name off.

But had I not learned about these comments, I would have carried on oblivious and remained (as I will continue to remain) polite and courteous for the five minutes I see this person on average each year.

I toyed with confrontation, but decided there was so little to gain from it that it wasn’t worth the hassle.  Had I been in closer relationship with this person then that would have changed things.

But as it was, I decided I would remain quietly self-righteous and congratulate myself on being the bigger man.

A feeling which didn’t last long because my irritating conscience soon drew to mind all the times I’ve shared things inappropriately about others.

So given that it was more my pride than anything else that was damaged through this whole fiasco, I decided to drill down some key observations about this middle class past time of ours…

1) Gossip hurts primarily because it has the ability to undermine our reputation.  The way people perceive us matters so we do not take kindly to being misrepresented.

2) We like having information about other people because we are naturally curious beings.  What we have to fight against is crossing the line between ‘taking an interest’ in other people’s lives and making value judgements on other people’s lives based on second hand information.

3) Context is crucial. Talking about someone without them being present is not necessarily malicious, but there is a right and wrong way to have those conversations.

4) It is far easier to talk about someone behind their back than it is to grow a pair and address the issue with that person.  We must resist the urge to indulge our inclination towards middle class passive aggression.

5) Gossip creates an ‘us vs them’ mentality.

The main thing gossip does to communities is create an ‘us vs them’ mentality.

If you’re the one circulating the gossip, you and your compatriots are likely to be agreeing about how awful so-and-so is.

If you’re the gossipee, you look for people who will support and stand up for you against your detractors.  Usually this culminates in the gossipees talking negatively about the gossipers for saying such awful things.

And so the cycle continues…

So I suggest we break the cycle and choose to be people who can be trusted with other people’s reputations.

Yours passive aggressively,

LK x